Whatever else God is, God is “gracious.” One of the greatest summaries of God’s nature repeated a number of times in the Hebrew Bible is: God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). There is a lot of unwrap there, and to understand regarding the “Who” of God in our midst, invisible but very much present.
One of the most beautiful, succinct yet accurate statements about the nature of both grace and mercy is this: “Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve, and grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.”
The word for grace in Greek is “charis.” It means an unmerited gift or favor, with no expectation of a return, usually given from a superior to an inferior. It is the decision and the “flow” from that decision, to do something good for another because one wants to do it rather than because it is owed or there is some sense of obligation. Grace is not like the gift of a Mafia “godfather,” wherein the recipient will have to render some future service in return. No obligation is incurred – something in our “quid-pro-quo” world of barter we find very difficult to believe.
Grace has had singular importance in my life. As the song says, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” For it was the grace of God which saved me, saved me when I was lost and nearly drowned in the wasteland waters of this shallow world. It was the grace of God which turned me, an unbelieving man of the world, into a believing child of God, into a disciple of Jesus Christ. I wrote a psalm about it, a thankful prayer to God, entitled “Grace:”
“You did not have to do what You did for me:
reach out and pluck me dying
from the dark burning of boundless despair,
from the mocking meaninglessness that exists
apart from the light of Your love.
You did not have to revive and restore me,
living now for You,
in the tender atmosphere of the Spirit between us,
the gentle Holy Spirit of Your love,
which is better than life.
Why did You save me
at the very hour of my going under, feeling then
instead of the last wrenching of death’s insensate claws, the first
healing, knowing touch of Your rescuing fingers?
That You, the living God, should be for me,
who had not been for You;
that You would reach out to hold and heal me,
who can offer You only gratitude,
and that inconsistently, inadequately,
is the never diminishing wonder of my life.
That You did for me what You did not have to do,
at the time when it had to be done,
if it was ever going to be done,
is the source of the ever-welling spring of life
You birthed in my heart, the strength
of my cleaving to You in hungering trust.
Nothing did You ask of me in exchange for Your grace,
No conditions or constraints did You set forth.
Yet Your lavish gifting aroused such ardor in me, such endless
After-life, that I keep on seeking to do for You
What I do not have to but choose to do.
In saving my life, You gave me
Your life to found my life,
Your love to ground my love,
Your grace to spawn in me grace
Like light for others.”
Years later, God made clear to me the extraordinary nature of grace in a prayer. It was early in the morning; I awoke and began to reflect upon my life. I looked deeply into my sins, into my inadequacies and failures. Then I realized I could not measure up to God’s goodness, God’s worthiness; I realized I could not give back to God a deserving response to all God’s goodness to me. I knew I could never by my labor be whom God surely wanted me to be, and whom I wanted to be for God.
I was so engrossed in myself, so obsessed with my state, that I was not seeing or sensing God. Instead of a peace-generating dialogue, I was having a self-tormenting monologue. I was stuck, stuck in my ever frail humanity, plagued by the realization that I could never measure up to, or attain, divinity. I was in over my head, I was way out of my league; what I sought would be forever out of my reach or control.
Then came a unexpected word of penetrating grace and truth, which stopped my self-examination and turned me to God, to my long-sought Partner in prayer. The word of the Lord to me was simply: “It’s not about you.” The words went through my soul and silenced me; the words revealed the precious presence of God, and just as significantly, shifted my attention off myself and onto God. I remembered God’s word through the Psalmist: “Seek ye my face.”
The most amazing thing happened as I gazed upon the Face of God, not with my eyes of course, but with my heart, with my inner eyes of love and longing. As I sensed the loving face of Christ, slowly, delicately, the Lord who is the Spirit filled in and up the holes of my being, poured healing ointment on the soreness and “sorry-ness” of my soul. I began to feel better, I began to feel whole, renewed, empowered – all through God, not through myself, not through any possible aspect or talent pertaining to me, but only through the power of God’s gaze, through the Spirit.
The focus of grace is on the Giver rather than the given. Grace concerns God’s inscrutable love for us, rather than our relative merits, as if we could ever earn or deserve what God is offering us. In sum, as Anne Lamott says, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”